Putting the future on hold with Bryce Harper

Weird grip, no?

I watched Bryce Harper go through the motions last Friday night, his attention to detail and serious countenance connoting a longtime veteran of the sport.

I listened as the 18-year-old Harper, sporting a ridiculous mustache, crafted a respectful and droll media presence, relaying with an underlying trace of irony to a group of reporters that he was “trying to get better every day” — repeating that four times in the course of a minute.

A little later, I was down in the tunnel talking baseball with Hagerstown hitting coach Marlon Anderson when I heard a bit of commotion coming from the visitors’ clubhouse. I looked over as a shirtless and smirking Bryce Harper emerged from the clubhouse, pointed at a teammate and hollered, “Better be careful, or that bag’s gonna be gone when you get back.”

This was the Bryce Harper I’d been waiting to see all night.

I’d been on the lookout for the Harper who’d projected himself as a Hall of Famer in the pages of Sports Illustrated at the ripe age of 16. The phenom who knows he’s going to be the best, doesn’t give a damn what you think, and as such is potentially the most interesting thing about the whole sport going forward.

I’d seen glimpses, of course.

I’ve long been amused at how Harper was known in high school for wearing his eye black Ultimate Warrior-style, kind of like the Vikings’ John Randle used to.

When the time came, I paid keen attention in the dugout as Harper applied his eye black less copiously than he’s known for, but with the expected flourish: a teammate held up Harper’s trademark Oakley sunglasses as a makeshift mirror as he meticulously smeared on his war paint.

Harper’s coaches kept telling me how he was just one of the guys, busting on his teammates and getting busted on in return, and I saw that in practice.

But then you think about Harper’s $10 million contract. And you watch time stop a bit as he went through that elaborate eye black ritual.

And you know he’s in a class of his own.

*****

At 18 years old, Harper had kids — and middle-aged men — lined up for autographs all weekend. They were already wearing his Nationals jersey despite the fact that he’s not likely to play in the Majors this year. He signed dutifully, mostly for the kids, and after the game he talked a lot about respecting his teammates, the game, the sport.

I'm jealous of the guy who got that jersey signed -- or unsigned It’s the right move. Even after a brief slump — he has one hit in his past four games — Harper’s putting up a Bonds-ian .358/.439/.642 line. But if he came out and talked about how he was going to take over the world and nobody could stop him, he’d probably end up getting hit by a whole lot of pitches and becoming a pariah in his own clubhouse.

I was impressed by Harper’s ability to address the press as if he’d been doing it his entire life, even though he couldn’t help but let on how unimpressed he is with the whole thing.

The 8,000-odd people Harper played in front of last Friday night was the biggest crowd he’d seen in the Minors this season. In Harper’s words, though, it was “just another crowd.”

When asked about adjusting to the Minor League lifestyle, Harper said, “Everything’s pretty much the same right now. I had a lot of bus rides last year.”

All the people who want his autograph? “It’s all the same. Nothing’s really changed with that.”

High school, professional baseball, little league — everything’s the same.

*****

That SI article two years ago compared Harper to LeBron James, while creating a knowing parallel of their own by giving him the cover of the magazine at 16 years old. And of course, in terms of how he carries himself, the two are markedly similar.

I’ve mentioned this many times on this site, but one of my favorite sports memories was sitting on the baseline underneath a basket to watch LeBron’s high school team play in Trenton back in 2003. Oozing with natural talent and charisma, LeBron scored 52 points that night, and I was instantly hooked on the idea that I was in on the ground floor.

Harper in Lakewood wasn’t exactly the same. Baseball is a more relaxed sport than basketball, and as baseball aficionado Rick Gold accurately put it to me earlier, “They play so much that there is no circus atmosphere.” 

That said, it was still very cool. Granted, Harper only had an infield hit in four at-bats the night I was there. But even on a limited basis at a Minor League park, the buzz, the spotlight, the larger-than-life stature for a teenage kid — it’s rare, and it necessitates no marketing effort.

I’ve long thought that though baseball has an excellent business model, playing mostly to die-hard laymen, one area it could improve upon is marketing its young stars.

Harper is perfect for breaking that cycle, since the sport doesn’t technically have to do very much. Harper’s going to cultivate hype based solely on who he is. I see sneaker contracts, a cool corporate logo designed by Nike, the works. He’s going to be like A-Rod, just right from the beginning.

LeBron is only now flaunting the personality quirks he unapologetically displayed back in high school, taking illegal contraband in the form of throwback jerseys and driving that infamous Hummer. He knew an air of maturity and humbleness would play better while trying to secure mainstream dollars. It was only after he was well established in corporate America that the veil was lifted.

“Philly fans, they love their players and their players love their fans,” Harper mused. “They’ll battle for them in and out. A lot like Yankee Stadium, they love their players, the fans. They don’t give a crap who you are.”

Harper was basically saying that they don’t care what kind of guy you are in Philadelphia as long as you’re good and you win. Allen Iverson and Michael Vick aren’t saints.

For the sake of spicing up a relatively antiseptic sport in a post-Bonds environment, I can only hope that Harper heads down the same anti-hero path as his basketball predecessor. And though I’m a Mets fan, I think Philly would be a fitting eventual backdrop.

*****

But there’s plenty of time for that.

The thinkerFor now, the lasting image I have of Harper — besides, of course, the eye black ritual — is of him simply playing right field in the waning moments of last Friday’s game.

Throughout the game, Harper had stood a few feet in front of a handful of people sitting on blankets on the berm, paying more attention to their picnic baskets than to the phenom right in front of them.

By the eighth inning, the sun had set, and all of the blanket-sitters had gone off to find warmer pastures. Harper stood alone in a beautiful twilight, nobody else in my line of vision, waiting for fly balls to come his way.

I wondered if his mind was wandering at all, and if it was, what he was thinking.

Was he looking ahead? Or was he taking it all in?

Someday, when he’s batting cleanup for the Yankees or something, this scene — the whole night, really — will probably seem like it never even happened. But I’ll certainly remember it.

A part of me wants to believe that Harper will too.

But I know the drill.

It’s all the same.

Esoteric

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